COLUMNS Stephen Berk

Boomers, Unite!

As anyone with the slightest familiarity with American demography knows, the generation born between 1946 and 1963, also known as the “baby boom generation,” is the largest in U. S. history. This generation can include those born during World War Two, of which I am one, since our life experiences share much the same framework as the later boomers. The enlarged boomer generation, who came of age between the early sixties and late seventies, as diverse as we are, shares a broadly similar experience of life in America. We are the generation that matured before Reaganism began a sustained shift in the tax structure so as to greatly lessen the burden on corporate and individual wealth and thereby create profound economic inequality. Our America offered an ever broader spectrum of citizens a way up, while the one remade by conservatives offers diminishing expectations for all but the coddled rich.

Reaganism and neoliberal economics carried on by subsequent administrations reversed over thirty previous years of work to restructure American life so as to give everyone a chance at upward mobility. That noble effort, from the New Deal to the Great Society, put in place the means of educational and occupational advancement and a social safety net that effectively made postwar America a prosperous society with an expanding middle class and a shrinking poverty statistic. When I was growing up, there was virtually no such thing as homelessness. But as conservatives began their remaking of America in the “prosperous” Reagan eighties, homeless people and “Will Work for Food” signs began to appear on city streets. Today millions live in cars, tents, what’s left of the woods, and under bridges.

While strong unions produced family wage factory jobs in the fifties and sixties, most Americans were aware that greater opportunity came with more education. Hence, in those years the US greatly expanded public higher education, adding many state universities across the country and building another more vocationally oriented tier of two year community colleges. These schools became stepping stones to university education or avenues into thriving trade and technical occupations. All levels of education received large amounts of federal and state aid. The common assumption was, no matter where you were on the political spectrum, you supported investment in public education, because it meant a decent life for your children.

Federal and state investment in higher education made it inexpensive for much of the baby boom generation. My master’s and doctoral education were at state universities, which charged nominal tuitions which I didn’t have to pay because I had teaching assistantships. I’ve never had any student loans to deal with, and neither did anyone I knew, and I knew many coming from very modest economic backgrounds. With no debt, it was easy for me to buy a house when I got my teaching job, which then paid just under $10,000 a year.

Today’s public disinvestment has created a harsher world. Tuitions are sky high even in many community colleges, and most students carry many thousands in unforgiveable debt which follows them around during much of their ensuing lives. They also lack the opportunities to gain jobs with growth potential that were a fact of life when I came of age. This is the result of a new economic order run by a corporate and political oligarchy that has simply deserted the American citizenry’s common needs. The chief spokespersons in Congress for the continuous downsizing of the American Dream are people like Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor, who grew up in the Reagan era and are imbued with its self enclosed ethics. But the fact remains there are more of us boomers than there are of them. Many of us raised a lot of hell over an Asian war in our youth. It ended up dividing us. But now with Ryan and Cantor going after our Social Security and Medicare, social insurance we spent our working lives paying into, we have an issue that can finally bring us together. Boomers unite! Fight for our benefits, and reclaim the American Dream for the next generations!

By Stephen Berk

Steve is a retired history professor from California State University at Long Beach. He's currently on the board of directors of Clatsop Community College, and teaches classes in the ENCORE program. He's written extensively on social, political and religious issues, and has been writing a column in HIPFiSHmonthly for over 5 years.

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